‘Runaways’ Review: A Meandering, Messy Adaptation Has No Idea Where to Go
I’m a big fan of Brian K. Vaughan’s original run on the Marvel comics Runaways, and to the credit of showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, they attempt to forge their own direction from the premise of six teenagers learning their parents are supervillains. Unfortunately, their new direction is mostly listless, choosing conspiracy boilerplate over narrative momentum at every turn. In the first four episodes (the only ones released for review of the ten-episode first season), the teenagers don’t even runaway. Instead, they stay put, investigate, and the show tries to follow six teenagers and all of their parents. It makes for a show that lacks focus and has none of the energy that made the comics such an enjoyable read.
Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz) has grown apart from his old friends Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin), and Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) following the death of Nico’s sister Amy two years earlier. Trying to reunite the group, they reluctantly come over to Alex’s house only to discover that their parents’ charity group, PRIDE, is conducting a dark ritual that may or may not have resulted in the death of a young runaway. As the teens try to deduce what their parents were up to, they must also contend with personal discoveries like Molly finding out she has super strength and Karolina glowing and sparkling when she removes a special bracelet. Meanwhile, their parents plot against one another while trying to make sure their kids didn’t discover their dark secret.
Arguably the biggest change from the comics is that Schwartz and Savage decide to make the parents a much bigger part of the story. Rather than malevolent antagonists who have the city on lockdown, the show very slowly tries to tease out their end game with Catherine Wilder (Angel Parker) and Tina Minoru (Brittany Ishibashi) coming off as the most powerful players. And yet despite trying to give us the perspective of the parents, it ends up depriving the show of a strong central viewpoint. There are great shows that manage to look at situations from both parents and their children, but neither group is particularly compelling in Runaways. Again, a large part of that comes back to pacing, where nothing feels urgent and a large part of the drama is reliant on people hiding things from each other.
It makes the entire endeavor feel like a chore, and one that doesn’t have much in the way of a promising payoff. I wouldn’t be surprised if Runaways ends up dragging its feet for an entire season and then in the tenth episode the kids finally run away, but to what end? Why is that a better story than what we got in the comics? The showrunners are under no obligation to ape Vaughan’s comics, but to his credit, his story starts with a bang. At the end of the first issue, the kids see their parents commit murder (a murder that’s unambiguous as opposed to the TV show where a girl goes into a chamber full of light and we cut to shocked expressions on the teens’ faces), and then they’re on the run. The first episode also ends with the parents’ ceremony, but then episode two cuts back and shows us everything from the parents’ perspective.
The approach smacks of a show that doesn’t feel like it has to get anywhere fast, but it also doesn’t really seem to go much of anywhere. Also, for a show that carried the Marvel brand, it continues the trend of the TV shows simply being supernatural dramas that share the name of a comic book. If not for the characters’ appearances, the premise, and a few other nods, you could rip “Marvel” off the title, rename the series, and no one would be the wiser. It doesn’t connect to any Marvel movie or Marvel TV show, and doesn’t make so much of a mention of either. You have a character like Chase’s father who’s an evil inventor and yet at no point does he lob an insult at Tony Stark. The full title may be “Marvel’s Runaways” but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything Marvel about the show.
You’d also have a tough time finding anything that makes Runaways distinctive. It’s a show that’s not very dramatic, not very melodramatic, and not very funny. Even after four episodes, the characters still feel thinly drawn and we don’t have sympathy for anyone in the cast. The lead actors certainly look the part when it comes to their characters, but their personalities can be summed up in one word. I don’t know if these young actors could do more if given richer characters, but they certainly don’t have time to own the story since Runaways is always checking in with the adults for some reason.
The drastic changes from the comics to the TV series don’t sink Runaways, and in some cases, the show makes smart changes like showing the influence of technology and trying to streamline certain aspects that may have worked on the page but not on the screen (then again, the show has a scene where one of the parents gives a weird alien thing on a respirator a boner that glows). And yet overall, Schwartz and Savage seemed to have missed what made Vaughan’s comics so compelling in the first place. Rather than get their characters on the run, they’d rather slow them to a crawl.
★ Poor — A waste of time
Runaways debuts on Hulu on November 21st.